Guided tours of the empty reservoir behind Elwha Dam near Port
Angeles will be offered on Saturdays beginning Aug. 3 and
continuing through Sept. 7.
Rangers from Olympic National Park will lead the tours and talk
about the massive dam-removal project. This will be a wonderful
service for visitors who wish to get up close and understand one of
the largest ecosystem-restoration projects in the world.
Instead of wandering aimlessly in what many would consider a
wasteland, visitors will gain an appreciation for the shifting and
eroding sediments and understand how the gravel is moving as the
river reclaims its channel. They will view newly established
vegetation and hear what it takes to restore native species to the
area. They will stand alongside the mighty stumps of old-growth
trees buried within the lakebed until the sediments began washing
The hour-long walks will begin at 1 p.m., leaving from the boat
launch at the end of Lake Aldwell Road. Turn off Highway 101 just
west of the Elwha River Bridge. Explorers should wear boots or
sturdy walking shoes and plan for windy conditions with no shade.
For information, contact the Elwha Ranger Station, (360)
Meanwhile, officials at Olympic National Park posted a new entry
to the Dam
Removal Blog yesterday. It describes how aerial surveys are
being used to measure changes in the sediments during this period
of low flows on the river. The entry also discusses the
revegetation effort, pointing out that sediments along the river
are drying out faster this year than last.
When my editor, Kim Rubenstein, asked me to write a story for
people who wish to check out the Elwha River restoration, it seemed
like a good idea. After playing the role of tourist for a day, I’m
convinced that many visitors will have a good time learning about
this once-in-a-lifetime event.
Learning about the natural features of the Elwha River watershed
is an important part of the experience. Before you leave home, I
recommend that you view a series of “webisodes”
on the Olympic National Park website. I’m told these videos by
Wings Over Watersheds are a sampling of what will eventually become
a longer video production.
A more complete story about the Elwha Restoration Project,
including a history of the two dams, has been captured in a new
book by Seattle Times reporter Linda Mapes. I wrote a
review of her book, “Elwha: A River Reborn,” to accompany my
visitor’s guide to the area.
I think kids and adults alike will enjoy playing around with a
Glines Canyon at Feiro Marine Life Center, where one can pull
out the dam and watch the sediment move downstream.
Randall Walz, director of education and volunteers at the
center, told me about misconceptions that some people have. Many
believe that the sediment in the Elwha moved downstream and piled
up behind the dams, he said. Instead, most of the sediment was
dropped off in the upper portion of the two reservoirs, where the
water slowed down as it entered the lakes.
The restoration work included digging a pilot channel through
the Lake Mills delta to form a new channel and guide the river
through the trapped sediment. The goal is not to move the sediment
downstream as quickly as possible, Walz said, but rather to
stabilize the deltas and allow them to erode over a longer period
If you want to see change, be sure to visit the mouth of the
Elwha River, which you reach from a dike trail at the end of Place
Road. Wherever you see sand, that’s change, because there was no
sand here before, said Anne Shaffer of the Coastal Watershed
The sandy habitat will better support the migration of juvenile
salmon and provide spawning areas for sandlance, a forage fish. The
decline of the rocky habitat could mean the end of tall kelp, but
researchers hope the new sandy habitat will support the growth of
eelgrass and a burgeoning community of diverse plants and animals.
Check out the
story I wrote in March, following a conference on the nearshore
changes taking place.
I have to say there’s not a lot of excitement to behold in the
upper portions of the two reservoirs unless you remember what it
was like when the lakes were in place or can visualize the enormity
of the change. The river now carves its way through a dry lake bed,
where one can see large old-growth stumps, which were either under
water or buried by sediment. Plants are coming back, some placed
there by restoration workers, others by natural processes.
With or without the dams, one can enjoy the escape into this
natural area, particularly as one moves into the higher trails in
Olympic National Park. Be sure to take time to enjoy the natural
surroundings, even if you need to cut out parts of your planned
If you want to observe the changes over time, I suggest you find
a vantage point and take a picture during your visit. When you
return the next time, take another picture for comparison. The
heavy gravel and silt seems fairly inhospitable at the moment. But
if you return again and again, I expect you’ll be amazed at the
transformation taking place over the next few years.
Changes are coming rapidly to the Elwha River, as massive
amounts of sediment shift around in the river channel and flow out
into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Over the past few months, researchers have documented the
formation of new beaches and the growth of the delta at the mouth
of the Elwha. I described these latest changes in a story in
Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.
The new information came out of an annual workshop of the Elwha
Nearshore Consortium, which has a special interest in the river,
especially its effects on the coastal reaches along the strait.
It’s exciting to hear about the transformation of the river, and
I would like to congratulate the scientists for the monitoring work
that allows us to talk about “before” and “after” dam removal —
although the “after” part will be an ongoing story for decades.
Many research organizations are involved in the Elwha, and I hope
their funding holds out to tell a more complete story from a
Meanwhile, many writers, photographers and videographers are
telling their own stories about the restoration in various ways,
and new books and documentaries are on the way. I’ve talked about
some of these in the past and will continue to do so as new works
The human connections to the river, particularly those of the
Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, have been widely recognized as an
integral part of the restoration story. Many Klallam elders have
been gracious in sharing their culture and traditions.
Although the Elwha Dam removal is far from the only restoration
effort taking place in Western Washington, it may be the one place
where nature is working at an extraordinary pace to put things back
the way they were.
The folks at Olympic National Park who keep us informed about
the Elwha River Ecosystem Restoration Project could not have
described it better: “It has been an explosive week at Glines
Canyon Dam,” they said in their “Dam
The “salmon window,” designed to protect migrating fish, has now
closed, allowing work in the river to begin again. This week, four
big blasts blew out large sections of the dam on Saturday, Monday,
Tuesday and Wednesday, as the reservoir level dropped from 489 to
476 feet, according to the blog. Click on the image to start the
video of the blasting.
After an upcoming blast on Sunday, a 14-day waiting period will
begin to allow the river to erode laterally.
The remote cameras at both the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams are
useful for observing environmental and structural changes in the
areas around the two dams. An unexpected use came into play
Thursday, when an average person looking at the Elwha Dam webcam
noticed a fire burning at the edge of the picture.
Firefighters from Clallam County, the Washington Department of
Natural Resources and Olympic National Park were able to extinguish
the blaze before it could burn more than half an acre. The cause of
the fire is under investigation. Read the
news release about fire danger in the national park.
It’s worth noting that we have just passed the first anniversary
of the start of dam removal. The Elwha Dam is gone and most site
work is complete. Glines Canyon Dam is about 60 percent removed.
And salmon have been observed swimming upstream of the Elwha Dam.
Click on the image (lower right) to start the video, which shows
what has happened over the past year.
Removal of the Elwha Dam and drawdown of Lake Aldwell behind it
have gone faster than originally planned, and now the story of the
Elwha River restoration becomes a story of erosion. Experts are
watching the sediment movement very closely.
The Elwha Dam has been entirely removed down to the river bed
(see photos below), and the river is now flowing in its original
channel, where it will remain. The river is being held back mainly
by a “check dam” of boulders. At the moment, the drawdown has been
halted at 133 feet elevation for a scheduled two-week holding
Andy Ritchie, restoration project hydrologist with Olympic
National Park, says the pause in drawdown will allow the river to
snake around to redistribute the sediment more evenly across the
valley. The final target elevation for the river bed is 100
Drawdown of Lake Mills, behind the upper Glines Canyon Dam, also
is on hold at the moment. Even more sediment is trapped behind that
dam. While project managers have largely lost control over the
movement of sediment behind the lower dam, the upper dam remains
intact enough to control migration of sediment from farther up the
As the weather improves this spring (or at least we can hope),
it may be time for many of us to visit the former lake beds at the
two dams. We can walk out onto the deltas and see the new
vegetation starting to grow. Lake Aldwell’s delta can be reached
from the old boat launch. For Lake Mills, take Whiskey Bend Road,
which has been reopened, and you will come to Humes Ranch trailhead
with access from there.
In a report last night on KING-5 News, Gary Chittim offered a
visually rich account of the studies taking place at the mouth of
the Elwha River, where nearshore and delta areas are expected to
receive huge loads of sediment after the Elwha and Glines Canyon
dams come out.
He noted that divers from The U.S. Geological Survey and
Environmental Protection Agency have been fighting strong currents
as they conduct a spacial survey of the plants and animals in the
Gary quoted Sean Sheldrake, dive unit officer for the EPA:
“Just yesterday, we were diving on a beautiful kelp forest with
a variety of fish and plant life, and the hope is through this
reconnection of the Elwha to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it will
not only continue but thrive.”
“Until now, we’ve focused most of our attention on the effect
this project will have on the river, salmon habitat and salmon
recovery. But with this survey, we will have a more complete and
much clearer picture of the effects on the nearshore ocean
More than 19 million cubic meters of sediment — enough to fill
11 football fields the height of the Empire State Building — has
accumulated behind the Elwha River dams, according to the news
release. That sediment is expected to create turbidity for a time,
but in the long run could be beneficial for a variety of plant and
animal species in area.
As demolition time draws near for the two Elwha River dams, 82
bull trout were recently captured in the middle portion of the
river and moved upstream out of harm’s way.
Scientists used their skills with hook-and-line fishing as well
as the more direct electroshock treatment to take adults and
juveniles from waters in and around Lake Mills at the upper Glines
Canyon Dam, as well as from the section of the river between the
The bull trout averaged 14 inches long, and some were as big as
The fish were held in net pens in Lake Mills for up to 10 days.
They were measured and sampled for genetic characteristics. Radio
transmitters were implanted in 31 fish to track their movements.
Then they were transported by helicopter to two locations upstream,
one near Elkhorn Ranger Station and the other at the mouth of Hayes
The protective action is considered important, because removal
of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams is likely to dislodge an
estimated 24 million cubic yards of sediment that has collected
behind the dams since they were built, according to estimates by
the Bureau of Reclamation. Most of that sediment will come from a
delta at the south end of Lake Mills. Bull trout caught in the
sediment-laden river probably will not do well, researchers
“Using the best available science, we’ve taken steps to protect
the bull trout population and given them immediate access to
high-quality, pristine habitats in the upper river through this
relocation project,” said Sam Brenkman, fisheries biologist for
Olympic National Park.
Even at 50 to 100 ppm, bull trout may stop feeding, suffer from
gill abrasion and experience stress that can reduce their fitness.
Greater levels of turbidity can lead to reduced health and possible
It was assumed for planning purposes that fish remaining in the
river would die. That’s why a priority was placed on maintaining
access to high-quality areas upstream as well as tributaries and
off-channel areas that can serve as refugia from the murky
In addition, the demolition schedule includes “fish windows”
when construction will cease and the river will clear up to a safer
level, allowing for salmon and trout to migrate and spawn. These
fish windows are scheduled for November-December to aid coho and
chum migration into the Elwha; May-June for hatchery out-migration
and steelhead in-migration; and Aug. 1-Sept. 14 for chinook and
pink salmon in-migration.
Bull trout were listed as threatened under the Endangered
Species Act in 1999. Over the past five years, fisheries biologists
have surveyed the river to find out where the fish hang out,
tracked them with radio telemetry and conducted genetic studies to
understand their population dynamics.
Based on this work, researchers estimate the adult bull trout
population at less than 400 fish, less than 3 percent of the entire
Elwha River fish community. Between 60 and 69 percent are found
downstream of Rica Canyon, which lies just above Lake Mills.
Moving the fish upstream will allow them to find the most
suitable habitat following dam removal. A unique characteristic of
bull trout is that some individuals in a given population may
migrate to the ocean, while others stay in freshwater their entire
lives. Some may move into tributaries or lakes, while others prefer
the main river.
Biologists believe bull trout once occupied the entire Elwha
River system before the first dam was built in 1910. Following dam
removal, the landlocked population above the dams will be able to
move all the way downstream. The anadromous population that can’t
get above the Elwha Dam will be able to utilize the entire
The relocation effort fulfills a requirement of a 2000 revision
to the 1996 biological opinion for bull trout by the U.S. Fish and
“We are pleased that we met our objectives,” said Pat Crain,
fisheries biologist for Olympic National Park. “And this project,
designed to protect a threatened species, would not have been
possible without close collaboration among the various
“During two weeks of field work, more than 20 biologists — from
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey,
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Lower Elwha
Klallam Tribe, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and
Student Conservation Association — assisted with and monitored the
capture and relocation effort.”
The relocation work was completed June 17.
Other projects that should help bull trout include a culvert
replacement on Griff Creek, a middle tributary of the Elwha, and an
evaluation of the competition that occurs with nonnative brook
Like a dark cloud, a fear of politics hangs over a program that
allocates state money for projects that protect fish and wildlife
habitat, build parks and trails and preserve farmland. Check out my
yesterday’s Kitsap Sun, which relates methods of funding to a
Bainbridge Island trails project.
A bit of history is needed to understand the controversy. In
1989, two prominent politicians, Republican Dan Evans and Democrat
Mike Lowry, joined forces to create the Washington Wildlife and
Recreation Coalition. The idea was to attract both government and
private money to the best projects of their kind in the state.
Because of the established criteria, the Legislature has avoided
fights over whether to fund particular projects. Instead, the
Legislature sets the statewide budget for the program, and expert
committees score the projects based on established criteria.
On the 20th anniversary of the program in 2009, an
editorial in the Seattle Times noted that some people doubted
that the political marriage of this “odd couple” — Evans and Lowry
— would last for the long run, but so far it has:
Cleaning up nuclear waste at the Hanford reservation in Eastern
Washington is one of this state’s most critical and vexing
environmental problems. The site is so dangerous to the people and
environment along the Columbia River that every Washington resident
ought to keep an eye on the progress.
“The contaminants out there are so dangerous and so long-lived…
We should be absolutely insisting that the federal government clean
that site up, whatever the cost,” Jay Manning told me three years
Since then, the federal government has poured billions into the
project, including a significant boost of dollars with the economic
stimulus package. Now that effort is being pared back, with a
significant loss of jobs, as Annette Cary reports in the
Converting huge amounts of nuclear waste into a safer form is a
difficult technological and logistical problem, as reporter Craig
Welch points out in a pair Seattle Times stories published
Jan. 22 and
These stories bring you into the meat of the problem. But I have
to say that I was equally impressed by a short piece I heard last
night on KUOW radio. Reporter Anna King helps us understand the
nature of problem from the perspective of people who have made a
career out of cleaning up Hanford’s waste. These grizzled employees
have learned from years of experience, and are now about to turn
over their projects to a new generation. The newcomers will learn
to navigate the minefields of nuclear risk — but they, too, may be
retired before the job is done. Quoting from her piece: Continue reading →
Here’s another battle between species. In
November on Water Ways, I repeated a “dramatic” video showing a
life-or-death fight between a shark and an octopus. The video was
filmed at the Seattle Aquarium and was produced by National
This time, the fight (actually a double billing) is between an
alligator and a python in the Florida Everglades, where Burmese
pythons are not native but have grown to incredible numbers in
recent years. So which animal is the king of the swamp? Left to
their own battles, will the alligator survive or will the python
become the dominant predator?
This video, taken from a
Nature program last year on PBS, shows that individual battles
between an alligator and a python depend on the size of the
The program describes research in which pythons have been found
to eat a wide variety of mammals, birds and reptiles. Because the
invasive pythons could wipe out endangered species, a serious
effort is under way to keep them out of the Florida Keys, where
they have not yet established a comfortable home. The invasion is a
serious, but interesting, challenge. I can recommend the entire
50-minute episode if you have not seen it.